Little confidence is expressed in Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema’s reaction when his 35-year-old nephew, then a banker at the firm Mesdag & Sons, unexpectedly expresses ambitions as an artist: “A Meissonier you will never become, perhaps another Courbet…” Just as well, a recommendation followed from the Belgian landscape painter Willem Roelofs. Who had repeatedly visited Barbizon and was inspired there by the unpolished painting style of Th. Rousseau, Corot and Millet. From Brussels he addressed his new pupil: “Try to get rid of all so-called manner and try in a word to imitate nature with feeling but without thinking of the work of others.” This echoes the adage that none other than Gustave Courbet expressed five years earlier on the opinion page of Courrier de Dimanche: “The beauty given by nature is above all conventions of the artist.” These principles would guide Mesdag’s conception of art. Perhaps another Courbet…
Mesdag and his wife Sientje settle in Brussels in June 1866. According to Charles Baudelaire’s observation, who at the same time languishes in a Brussels hotel room, “Belgians found associations to find an opinion…. One thinks in community. One therefore does not think.” Hendrik Mesdag finds affiliation with the Société Libre des Beaux Arts, a progressive movement led by Louis Artan and Alfred Verwée, which advocates a new realism against the dogmas of established academism. Writer and association member Léon Dommartin believes that “the art of our time must return to man and to nature – to la grande nature” Mesdag embraces the principles of the association and, following them, strives for a modern and free art in the footsteps of French Realism.
A marine painter, however, does not find his vocation in the “sadness of a city without a river” (again Baudelaire). During a vacation on the East Frisian island of Norderney, Mesdag finally becomes captivated by the changes of tide, the cloudy skies and the bustling fishing fleet. “There I got to know the sea in all its beauty,” the painter later recalled. The next year, we write 1869, he envisages a move to The Hague. For, he writes his friend Verwée, “you must see the sea before you, every day, you must live with it, otherwise it will be nothing.”
The Brussels influence of marine painters Louis Artan and Paul Jean Clays remains unmistakably present in all Mesdag’s later work. The environment of the Hague School is decisive for his further development. Followers of The Hague School were inspired by the free brushwork and tempered palette of Barbizon, their themes leaning heavily on Dutch painting of the seventeenth century. The importance of the movement was endorsed by the critic Jacob van Santen Kolff, who also gave his name to the new style, in De Banier (1875): “This new way of seeing and reproducing is a real iconoclasm in the field of painting. What is to become, for example, of the fine, enameled brushwork and beautiful colors of a Gudin and a Meyer, or of the East Indian ink waves of a Schotel, when we have learned to find the broad ‘touche’, the impressive truth and power of tone of a Mesdag beautiful?”, to add: “Here we have realism of the truest, healthiest form before us”.